NYC’s Climate Goal: Symbolism Over Science

The City Council of New York recently approved—unanimously—the bill introduced in September to reduce NYC’s carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by the year 2050. The vote and accompanying commentary from political officials showcases just how much symbolism has triumphed over science in the climate policy debates. Even if every word Al Gore had ever uttered about climate change were true—which they’re not—the following news story would still be utterly nonsensical:

The City Council overwhelmingly passed a bill today mandating that New York City slash its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050…

“While rising sea levels and extreme weather events are likely to be a part of the city’s future, we can still prevent the worst outcomes,” [Council Speaker] Ms. Mark-Viverito told reporters before the vote.…

In 2006, under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the City Council passed a law requiring a 30 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. [District 22 Council member and author of the new bill] Mr. Constantinides, however, said the projected rising sea levels and more unpredictable storms resulting from climate change meant the Council and Mr. de Blasio needed to take more dramatic action….

“There’s probably no greater threat to our global civilization than climate change,” Mr. Constantinides said. “There is undisputable links between our carbon emissions and reducing ice sheets, extreme sea rise and overall warming climates worldwide.”

“If we don’t act now, future generations of New Yorkers will be condemned to a future of blistering summers, mass extinctions and seas that threaten to engulf low-lying areas around the globe,” he added.

A spokeswoman for Mr. de Blasio praised the Council for passing the legislation.

“We are very pleased to partner with the Council as we work to dramatically reduce our contributions to climate change, and the Mayor looks forward to signing this legislation,” said the spokeswoman, Amy Spitalnick. “The city will lead by example by retrofitting every public building with any real energy use within the next ten years, while partnering with the private sector to further reduce emissions and improve efficiency–generating billions in savings and creating thousands of jobs.”

To repeat, even if one took the most alarmist projections of human-caused climate change at face value, the above commentary is sheer nonsense. New York City’s emissions are utterly insignificant when it comes to the issue of global climate change. When Council member Constantinides warns what will happen “if we don’t act now,” that statement only makes sense if by “we” he means “the entire United States, Europe, China, and India.” If instead, by “we” he means “the people of New York City”—which in context he clearly does mean—then his statement is absurd.

Even if the entire United States and Europe agreed to a significant reduction in emissions, this would be largely symbolic without reciprocal action from China and India. Indeed, using a standard climate model and estimates of key parameters, even if the United States stopped all carbon dioxide emissions immediately and forever, the global temperature in the year 2100 would be a mere 0.2 degrees Celsius cooler than under the status quo baseline. If that’s true for the United States collectively, it should be clear that the efforts of New York City to merely reduce emissions by mid-century are completely irrelevant.

Finally, the commentary about “job creation” is likewise absurd. Even if we thought that New York City’s carbon dioxide emissions had a measurable impact on climate change—which they don’t—it still wouldn’t make sense to laud the crackdown on emissions for “creating jobs.” If that made sense, then New York City could likewise pass a mandate cutting down on the use of bricks or steel or asphalt 80 percent by 2050. As businesses scrambled to change their operations in light of the arbitrary regulation, we could see “job creation” in certain areas that were now artificially favored. Of course, the economy as a whole would suffer, because you don’t make society richer by taking away options from businesses. At best we would see an equal number of jobs “destroyed” by the new regulations, with consumers being made poorer on average.

In conclusion, when it comes to New York City’s bill to cut emissions, we don’t need to get into the details of the climate models to assess the plausibility of their assumptions. Even if the apocalyptic vision painted by Al Gore and others is perfectly true—which it’s not—measures limiting the emissions from individual cities are utterly absurd. They epitomize the prevalence of symbolism over science in our climate change policy debates.

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